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City commission makes four interim charter officers permanent in “abrupt” motion

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Gainesville City Commission voted today to make four of their interim charter officers permanent in response to a motion offered by Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker during commission comment. The item was not noticed to the public, and a similar vote failed at the January 5 meeting.

Commission comment is at the end of the afternoon session of the city commission’s schedule, and most of the public and the media had left when Duncan-Walker led off commission comment by saying, “I want to hire the City Manager.” Duncan-Walker said Interim City Manager Cynthia Curry “made choices from the very beginning that weren’t very popular” but that needed to be made. She said Curry has “a spirit of ingenuity that I deeply respect.” She made a motion to made Curry the permanent City Manager, and Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut seconded the motion, saying, “I don’t think we could make a better choice.”

Commissioner Reina Saco asked whether Duncan-Walker would also support making Interim GRU General Manager Tony Cunningham permanent, and then she and Duncan-Walker agreed to extend the motion to all four of the interim charter officers that have been serving for some time–Curry, Cunningham, Interim City Attorney Daniel Nee, and Interim Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Director Zeriah Folston. Former City Auditor Ginger Bigbie’s resignation was effective January 13, so the Interim City Auditor has only been serving for a few days.

Commissioner Casey Willits said the motion was “a little abrupt” and that he preferred to get feedback from the public before taking the step.

Mayo Harvey Ward said, “I don’t think it’s going to be a surprise to anyone that I support the motion… I have not seen a group of charter officers work together as well as this group of charter officers work together.” He said he thought the move would improve morale among City employees because they will know who their boss will be for the foreseeable future. He added, “The flip side is, I’ve seen what the applicant pool is likely to look like, and I’m telling you these folks are head and shoulders” over the likely applicants. “I think it is the right path forward for the City.”

Commissioner Bryan Eastman recommended setting up the contracts so they would have to be renewed every year or two. He said that would make it less awkward for one commissioner to make a motion to not renew a contract if they felt a charter officer was not performing well.

Chestnut said she had planned to go one-by-one through all of the interim charter officers during commission comment, so she appreciated Duncan-Walker’s motion to hire all of them on a permanent basis. She agreed with Ward that employee morale would improve because they need to know who they will be working for. She also said she wanted to consider the City Auditor process within three to six months; the process of hiring the City Auditor is currently scheduled to start in June. 

Duncan-Walker said she would like to hear more about annual contracts as part of the policy process but did not want to incorporate that into the current round of contracts that would be negotiated by the Mayor if the motion succeeded.

During public comment, Ron Rawls said, “We deserve this. We deserve a functional City government that’s acting like adults.” Jo Beaty said the process was “appalling… not because of the decision… I’m very disappointed that any of you commissioners would think about bringing up something like this when most of the public has left and most of the media has gone… I can’t believe, in the basement of this building, at this time, that any one of you, much less all of you, would consider doing what you’re about to do… People need to have the opportunity to speak to these motions… I’m shocked and appalled… This is the people’s business, and you’re doing it when everybody’s gone… This is why the public doesn’t trust you.”

Ward had announced at the beginning of the meeting that they were in the basement conference room because of a technical problem in the commission chambers that needs to be repaired.

Nathan Skop pointed out that this item was not advertised on the agenda: “Yes, you can, but should you? No… We don’t know what candidates are out there. I’m not saying existing charters should not be hired, but this is an example of commissioners doing one thing at one meeting and then doing something different at the next meeting… I think we need to advertise this on a regular agenda.”

When the discussion came back to the commission, Commissioner Ed Book said there was validity to the argument that the item had not been advertised, but he sensed that public input would not change their minds because the public would support hiring the interim charter officers. He supported advertising it for the commission’s next meeting instead of voting right away.

Eastman said he would still support the motion “because I’m passionate about this” but agreed with Book that things like this should be put on the agenda in the future unless it’s an emergency.

Duncan-Walker said commissioners had already received a lot of feedback on hiring the interims, “so for me, this is not about being in the basement after everyone’s gone… This has been an urgency… I agree this should be on an agenda. I don’t like surprises, either… This is an emergent situation, based on what I’ve heard from the public [and from staff].”

Saco said the public had the opportunity to provide input when the process for hiring charters was on the agenda two weeks ago. “I support it because I want this started… Was it a perfect way to do it? No. But it’s close enough… and I’d rather vote today.”

Chestnut said this has been a discussion since the Mayor was sworn in, and “there will be times when things you consider important are not submitted as an item for the agenda. That’s just the way a commission works. Don’t expect every time for issues to be printed on the agenda.” 

Ward said people had been coming up to him in the grocery store to talk about hiring the charters, and “people want a motion on this.”

The vote was 6-1, with Willits in dissent, in favor of beginning contract negotiations with the four interim charter officers.

  • After Ward’s comments about having meetings in the basement one can’t help but wonder what else may have been broken behind closed doors before this meeting. It’s quite obvious how well he and some of the prior commissioners and Poe worked together.

    Liberals, duped again.

  • It looks like Saco and Willits have convinced Eastman to start wearing a mask. That’s sad. Eastman is obviously the natural leader among those three, although Saco will likely try to bully him like she bullies the public. He should tell Saco he doesn’t want to wear the woke hijab anymore. I think it is at least commendable that the commission seems more interested in “taking care of business” and moving from one thing to the next without the usual catatonic delays there always seemed to be with the previous commission.

  • Two Faced Fat Harvey just reversed his campaing promise and voted for a ridiculous , undeserved double your salary raise . What a Lyrrrr

  • I think they recognized no competent outsider would want to apply for the charter jobs, given our Blue island’s reputation in Florida. If you were a charter applicant from another state, why would you choose a Dem city in Florida that repeats what you’re escaping from elsewhere? You’d never get any sleep from putting out a series of self-inflicted DEI fires. Hence the caveat about competence.

  • Read the city charter, chapter 2 section 2-66, Salaries. Seems to me that the commission is in violation of that section. Quick Ms. Curry! We need an immediate rewrite. Get Nee on the bat phone. All “qualified” hands on deck!

    • Charter? What charter? Those are just suggestions. Two-faced Harvey and his team can do whatever they please. So far no one has been able to stop them.

  • Congratulations! You not only scooped every other news source in Alachua County, but your reporting was so detailed and accurate that it showed any reasonable reader how frightening this new Harvey Ward government will be. You got me personally off the hook by letting readers know that most of us–including me–at left, because we had no reason to anticipate anything serious remaining on the agenda. I now know why and how Lauren Poe and Harvey Ward got rid of the city being recognized as the first Butterfly City by intentionally putting the issue to a vote when this momentous event was not on the agenda, and public comment was heard, before the motion and agenda. We truly are in a Harvey Ward dictatorship. Oy, vey. Gabriel Hillel, for Florida Freedom Summer of 2024. I will be making a point of this during public comment at the general policy committee meeting next Thursday, Jan. 26, at the GRU Building–unless they do that at some other time or place. Thank you, Thank you. You have restored my faith in journalism at a time when I had given up because of the manipulation of local media by traditional sources. Submit for a Pulitzer. Seriously.

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